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NBA Referees Make The Most Money in American Sports
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

NBA referees can be some of the most hated or loved people on the basketball court. If the call is in favor of the home team, they’re a hero. The other way, not so much.

Zebras are tasked with making the correct call, ensuring fairness, and enduring an earful from coaches. The refs at the highest level have to especially be on their game. They monitor the sport’s best players at a speed found on a racetrack.

They need to be sharp, knowledgeable, confident, and able to withstand 20,000 boos if they make a controversial call. This recipe for pressure is a lot to handle. The pay makes it permissible.

Job Requirements

NBA officials are required to be scholars of the rulebook and process decisions quickly. The officials maintain tip-top fitness. Imagine running the floor every night with some of the world’s best athletes. Above all, they have to be articulate communicators.

Like NBA players, refs work their way up the ranks from youth, high school, college, and the G-League to the NBA. Following this path, if the skills are good enough, you’re invited to a Referee Training Camp — They call it the Top Gun of refereeing. If you excel there, you’re chosen to officiate the G-League. The top officials of the G-League are promoted to the NBA.

Officiating is a full-time job for the entire eight-month NBA season. Each team in the league plays 82 regular-season games over that period. Road trips can sometimes reach 24 to 25 days per month.

How Much Do NBA Refs Make?

Officials in the National Basketball Association are divided into three distinctions: Entry-level, WNBA, and Senior. According to Career Trend, entry-level referees earn $600 per game or $250,000 per year as “rookies.” WNBA referees earn $425 per game or $180,000 per year. After three to five years of service, referees are eligible for a higher salary at the senior level. Senior referees make an average of $3,500 per game or an annual salary of $500,000. Per contest, the average salary of an NBA referee is $1,829 to $6,707 including bonuses.

Attractive compensation packages that include travel stipends, insurance, and retirement benefits are bundled in. The best of the best are selected to ref NBA playoff games and the NBA Finals. On top of their salary, an additional $800 to $5,000 per game is earned in the postseason depending on rank.

The National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA) is the professional organization that represents career referees in the NBA, WNBA, and G-League.

NBA Referee Salary Compared to Other Sports

Compared to their peers in the NFL, NHL, and MLB, NBA referees’ salaries are among the best. NFL referees make an average of $205,000; MLB umpires rake in roughly $300,000; and NHL officials earn between $275,000 on average.

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It pays well to wear the stripes. Working directly inside the game is rewarding, but it’s not all roses. The season is grueling, and the time away from the family for a large portion of the year is taxing. It could be worse. Watching stars like LeBron James perform in-person on a nightly basis is an exclusive perk.

This article was originally published June 16, 2020.

MORE: How Much Do NFL Referees Really Make?

Joe Grobeck About the author:
Joe is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lives in Austin, Texas. He believes Ndaumkong Suh should've won the 2009 Heisman and is an avid basketball fan.
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